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Luci Kelemen
Luci Kelemen

Writes about way too many things. Has way too many opinions. Wants to tell all the interesting stories in the world.

April 9th, 2021

Though not quite The International, international Dota is back on the menu after major changes made to the DPC. There’s nothing like a global pandemic to shatter long-held perceptions, and by now even the bigwigs at Bellevue must be thinking TI is too big for its own good rather than simply just too big to fail. Seeing how the people at Valve are in a unique position to compare the state of play in competitive Dota with that of their other proprietary esport in the form of Counter-Strike, it shouldn’t even be that difficult to envision a less top-heavy version of the scene, especially after a year without TI.

A brave new world

As disruptive as the pandemic was for most aspects of everyday life, it promised a boon for esports as a whole. With traditional sports completely shut down for a few months in 2020, and competitive video gaming able to carry on online, we saw interest and player numbers spike across all platforms and many different games. However, it’s clear that not every party benefited from this the same way.

As the crown jewel of League of Legends esports chugged along, Counter-Strike tournament organizers were actively looking to reunite the teams from around the world at LAN events, and even the two major Activision-Blizzard titles (Overwatch and Call of Duty) managed to pull off their world championship finals for the season, competitive Dota remained in limbo.

TI10 was postponed, much like the long-overdue DPC revamp alongside it, and Valve’s long summer of silence has infuriated pros and talent alike as they had to take it upon themselves to ensure there’s at least some sort of competition going on in the form of the OMEGA League: an especially odd development considering how good Valve used to be at harnessing community initiatives for their own benefit.

Even some of the bigger names in the community like Slacks began to speak of the game’s managed decline, and there was a pervasive sense that the usual summer drop in player count – traditionally counteracted by TI – may have been permanent this time around. Indeed, the peak numbers hover in the same range since, between 650 000 and 750 000.

That said, neither Dota nor its esports scene is dying – that term has been essentially rendered meaningless in gamer lingo and makes no sense to apply to a game that still pulls consistent numbers which are the envy of all but a handful of other titles – but it certainly could use a deeper intervention, starting with a long-overdue rethink of its headline event.

40 million reasons why

Imagine a game of Dota where a Roshan kill offers 100 times as much XP as it normally does, and you get what it’s been like to play this game competitively for the last couple of years. As 2020 has shown, the real problem with a self-perpetuating system built around getting to The International at the expense of everything else is that it completely collapses if the feature event is removed from the calendar for one reason or another.

The diminishment of non-DPC events and the annual deathly dash for the TI qualification spots have long been documented in the scene – what’s perhaps less often discussed is how even a strong run at The International doesn’t guarantee you much from the perspective of an org.

The fact that no squad until OG managed to reclaim the Aegis of Champions makes for a charming story, but by the same token, the fact that not even a TI win can keep a Dota team relevant on a sustainable basis is a damning indictment. And yet, Valve apparently see little to no value in supporting orgs and their intellectual property, much like how they opted to remove tournament compendiums from the game.

It’s a longstanding maxim that esports still remains a marketing vehicle for most game developers, and there are good arguments to be made about the diminishing returns of Dota’s annual mega-competition. Though it takes some trickery with the prize pool distribution, The International’s winners always top the annual earning charts (with the percentages sometimes subtly bumped up to cross specific thresholds like the Fortnite World Cup’s $3 million offering to its winner) but without the multitude of mainstream media appearances you’d perhaps expect from the record.

With initiatives like Dragon’s Blood and the tutorial revamp, knowing full well that the Dota brand and TI are simultaneously entrenched in the endemic scene no matter what, you could see how the benefits of a different distribution of all this money are beginning to outweigh the costs in favor of the fabled “new player experience” and maybe, just maybe, a tutorial that doesn’t suck.

Though the TI10 that never was managed to squeak past the magical mega-number of $40 million in its prize pool, the annual record-breaking via community contributions left a bittersweet aftertaste due to the lack of the showpiece event itself coupled with a dearth of meaningful updates to the main game at the time.

Thing is, Valve wouldn’t have to look far for an alternative approach.

Valve Dota 2 The International 10
Dota 2
The Valve path: from benign to neglectful
Dota 2
The International history but it’s Billy’s school report card

A different path

For a long time, CS:GO was seen as the oft-ignored little brother out of the company’s two big esports. They only got directly involved with the Majors (which are the biggest events on the calendar over there), held either two or three times a year, offering a measly $1 million prize pool to designated tournaments which would have also been held otherwise by one of the third-party TOs.

No Gabe Newell to welcome everyone, no crowdfunding, no in-game caster voice lines. And yet, even with the smaller stakes, the resilience of CS:GO esports shone through during the pandemic as the tournament circuit continued apace online even with the cancellation of the big Valve-sponsored events of the year. Meanwhile, the game’s player count peaked at 1.3 million concurrent shooty people a year ago, surpassing Dota’s longstanding record and then some.

dota csgo player count comparison

Comparison via Steamcharts

It goes to show that there are benefits to not overshadowing other tournament operators in the scene with one humongous event, causing horror stories like the ESL One Mumbai debacle. Interestingly, the introduction of Regional Major Ranking events in CS:GO – which offer points for the Major qualification in a suspiciously similar way to the just abolished Dota Pro Circuit – suggests there’s more common ground between the two scenes than one might think at first glance.

Return to Singapore

It wass good to have LANs back, wasn’t it? Though the copious amounts of green screen tech and the many players and teams missing out due to COVID shenanigans make it far from perfect, the first Major of the 2020/21 DPC circuit has been a blast. A more robust and consistent online league element that then dovetails into fewer and therefore more meaningful high-stakes tournaments: a good start for all concerned. One can only hope that third-party events will become a greater part of the puzzle again in the future in the ecosystem.

Indeed, in many ways, Dota would even be a better fit for this sort of a setup than CS is, with the depth and customizability of the title allowing for more ways for TOs to differentiate between one another and their respective events – think Midas Mode but on a larger scale.

Coupled with the Dota community’s well-established habit of giving, shifting the TI crowdfunding to the DPC as a whole (or possibly even beyond) would seem to make a lot of sense in the new decade. After all, most of the same operators are involved across both games, with the BLAST entering Dota last year with their Bounty Hunt event.

In fact, Valve committed to directly supporting a set of events at the tail end of 2020, and you could easily see that being a test run for a potential wider involvement. Indeed, reports suggest there could have been a TI10 last year if Valve really wanted to make it happen.

As devastating as it has been, the hellscape of 2020 offers a chance for a fresh start for many – and in the case of Dota 2 esports, a thorough revamp of incentives could turn the new decade from one of managed decline into a community-fueled renaissance. Whether that’s something Valve almighty will allow remains to be seen.